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Bribe or gift: Treading the thin line

Inside the Reef By Joyce McClure

In recent years, news about corruption in the Pacific islands has focused on China’s “gifts” of money, kickbacks and travel for island leaders looking to gain support for development projects. Yet, there are other forms of less noticeable and smaller acts of corruption within the islands that often lie in between customary and statutory laws.

“A recurrent issue,” noted Dr. Manuhuia Barcham in his 2007 white paper, Corruption in Pacific Island Countries, “is the complex interrelationships between culture and traditional systems in shaping people’s understanding and perception of corruption and how culture influences corrupt behavior.”

Customs and traditions place high value on communal duty, obligation and responsibilities that promote harmony and peace; while the constitutions of the FSM national government and its four state governments focus on civic, public, and private rights based on U.S. laws first introduced during the days of the Trust Territory.

Although those constitutions protect traditional rights, Yap’s constitution is the only one that recognizes the island’s two traditional councils of chiefs as the fourth branch of government charged with reviewing all legislation to ensure that it protects tradition within the democratic framework.

However, the councils were formed at the end of the 19th century when the Germans controlled Yap so they, too, are modern additions to the centuries-old political structures.

Among the common types of corruption that are seen differently by the two forms of law are nepotism, petty bribery of public officials and vote buying.

The public sector is the main employer in the FSM with 70 percent of all adults working for the government. Laws state that the hiring of public servants must be based on merit and require an examination of qualified candidates; yet hiring managers often put relatives and friends ahead of more qualified applicants.

On a small island like Yap with a population of approximately 7,000 on the main island and 4,000 scattered across the outer islands, family and clan relationships run deep and wide.

In his book “Making Sense of Micronesia,” Francis X. Hezel writes that “favoritism toward family in awarding jobs” is often dismissed as “relatives taking care of one another.” It can, he says, “be seen as sharing the wealth with those to whom one is indebted” and is “understood merely as a way of meeting social obligations” to those closest to them. In some circumstances, it may also be a way to hold the employee “accountable for quality work.”

Petty bribery of public officials is also viewed differently. According to Transparency International’s 2021 Global Corruption Barometer for the Pacific, 61 percent of public service users surveyed in the FSM paid a bribe to get a service in the previous 12 months. The issuance of government documents and the police were the top services identified as being given bribes across the 6,000 people in 11 island nations surveyed.

However, one person’s bribe is another person’s gift, So, what is the distinction? Gift-giving is a traditional practice in Micronesian cultures. It is a part of the social fabric in which exchanges increase trust and build social capital between groups.

Yale professor Susan Rose-Ackerman writes in her book, “Corruption and Government Causes, Consequences and Reform,” that it is not the practice of gift-giving itself that is corrupt, but the structures of the modern state that give it power and thus open up opportunities for “some elites” to exploit opportunities for their own benefit.

Intent, scale and the nature of the gift are at play, she says. If an elected official is given, say, cigarettes and alcohol as a gift when visiting a village, they may reciprocate with a gift of pigs later. But if he receives a large sum of money from the village and reciprocates with a new public works project, then it is considered a matter of corruption.

Traditional leaders often receive gifts for the community in a public setting, not for private gain, but for redistribution to the community. This increases the status of the leader and helps the community. But modern-day leaders who accumulate private wealth away from public view with no intention of redistribution can be deemed corrupt in both modern and customary terms.

Vote buying is another form of pervasive gift-giving. In Yap, it is common for candidates to visit the Outer Islands with bags of rice, cases of beer and other “gifts” for the chiefs to distribute. The chiefs then tell the voters whom to vote for. The traditional Council of Tamol that oversees the Outer Islands also tells the chiefs who they are expected to support in the election. Candidates who run for office to represent the main island’s 10 municipalities also lavish gifts on chiefs and villagers prior to the election.

In like fashion, the Council of Pilung, which represents the main island’s municipalities, establishes their choices and the heads of the families then tell their family members who to vote for.

Members of the FSM Congress are given discretionary budgets that they use for funeral gifts, community projects, and other private and public needs and requests. Is that vote-buying? When does a gift become a bribe?


However, this is changing with more people becoming informed voters. Among the issues in the 2018 election were allegations of Chinese developers giving “donations” to candidates willing to support their proposed programs. One incumbent who ran for re-election told me he lost because he refused the money and was on the receiving end of a smear campaign as a result.

In the 2022 elections, several senators decided not to run again due to public concern about their alleged acceptance of bribes from Chinese developers. It is widely believed that they knew they would not win due to public push-back on social media and did not want to suffer the embarrassment of a loss.

The Pacific region is rich in cultural diversity and traditional values and practices that are rooted in reciprocal and holistic communal obligations and responsibilities aimed at promoting community harmony, peace and prosperity,” Tina Takasy noted in her 2009 FSM Country Report on Human Rights for the Victoria University of Wellington Law Review.

Democratic rights are compatible with traditional rights, she stated, and future policies must combine both perspectives.

After a long career as a senior marketing executive, Joyce McClure traded the island of Manhattan for the island Yap as a Peace Corps response volunteer in 2016. She is now a freelance writer and photographer living in Guam. Send feedback to

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